Language, as a design parameter

edited May 2011 in Story Games
In the thread "The history of Danish freeform" this was posted:
Posted By: PFallesenI'm will personally no longer write games in Danish, unless the language in itself poses a necessary/interesting design parameter.
I was a bit confounded; to me the language is THE foremost design parameter of all. We are talking dialogue-based roleplaying games here. To me the language of the game-text is a way of inspiring the use of certain words in-game, and in some instances; to make the players adopt a totally new way of speaking.

So I consider the language of the game to be crucial to the game.

How about you?
- How important is language in your design?
- What kind of experiments have you done with in-game language?


  • I played PTA in Chinese once and have thought about writing a game in that language, specifically to connect better with the Chinese roleplaying community. I've also thought about coming out with a dual-language English-Italian versions of one of my short games, Killing Kublai Khan, because it's based on parts of a book by the late Italian author Italo Calvino and the Italian indie games community seems really cool. But it's pretty different being 'Merican, since most other contemporary folks are required to learn English due to U.S. (and, previously, British) hegemony and the fact that Americans invented the internet. The audience of Chinese-fluent players in the states is pretty small, despite the fact that I know several indie game designers in that category.
  • I do some design in English, but the bulk is in Norwegian. I find it easier to play in my own language, and are mindful of doing my part in making role-playing games that express a Norwegian way of being human. Not saying that other ways of being human is less interesting, but saying that Norwegians need games by, for and on themselves too.

    John Cage said once: It is possible that art is the letters by which we spell our lives.

    If that is true, then we need games as much as any other art, to spell our particular lives, in the particular place and culture we live in. Henceforth my focus on making games in my own language.
  • Posted By: J. WaltonI played PTA in Chinese once and have thought about writing a game in that language, specifically to connect better with the Chinese roleplaying community.
    Would that differ from designing games in English, Jonathan? Would the language influence what kind of game you'd make?
  • I've run games in English and French, sometimes both at once, as well as designing games in both languages. The main differences for me are not about different ways of thinking or expressing oneself as constrained by either language (although English and French are pretty close), it's more about the history of game development in either country.
  • That's interesting, Steve. In which way do the history of game development differ in England and France (possibly in many ways, and profoundly, so just give us a short list), and how has it influenced your design?
  • I teach English in China, and for the last several months I've been doing a lot of experimenting in using a roleplaying game to teach. It's gotten so that teaching and playing are one and the same -- my Chinese friends and students who play are really having a nice time, but I had to go through a lot of learning in making it work for them.

    First, English isn't their native language, so it's really hard for them if they have to take a "stat" like "charisma" and pair it with a "skill" like "negotiations" and turn that into real play in a game. You and I do it just fine because we're fluent in our own language, but when you're not fluent, then trying to understand what these terms mean concretely enough to understand the rules they refer to and then invent narration to go along with that is just way too much, especially for people who never played any kind of roleplaying game before.

    So I made sentence formation essential to the actual play of the game. You have to first say, "I want to [do something]" to state your goal, and then follow with " [doing something]" to say how you do it. You can add character traits (which are usually like qualities of a character, tools they have, special powers, and the like), into your narration and for each of these you use, your chances of success goes up. I've found that helping people make the right kind of sentences in a roleplaying game (in fact integrating sentence structure into the rules themselves) is a great way to ease entry by beginners, and conveys a lot of principles (such as "IIEE") without needing any explanation at all.
  • edited May 2011
    David; that is really great! To find the easy solutions, like you do, and apply them to the benefit of others, is of great value.

    Nowadays I'm pondering what we do when we play, language-wise. How do we use our language in the game?

    - We use it in creative descriptions, and that is the most challenging way of speaking. But somehow we perceive it as easy to do, in a game. If asked to do it outside a game, many of us will stutter and stall, and perform a silent fall. There are two main reasons, in my view, why most of us do so much better in a role-playing game.

    - 1 -
    I believe it has to do with the "ritualistic" nature of a role-playing game; the "ritual" (the known game-method) conveys a feeling of security, and leaves us free to be creative.

    - 2 -
    I believe it has to do with dialogue dynamics; when you say something, I will answer or question it, and then Jill says something, and you again, and we are off ... The dialogue is improvised, and works well as an improvisation due to us being used to this kind of dynamics. It has become second nature to us. And (important) role-playing games make use of this in a very simple way; by mirroring the pattern of a dialogue.

    So most games works well without ever considering how dependent they are on our dialogue-skills. The players bring these skills to the table anyway. My question is what we may do with the dialogue, if we make it a focus in our design-endeavours?
    - What kind of tools are there to be used, and discovered?
    - How far can we go in framing the dialogue, directly, by giving rules on how it is to be performed?
    - Is it possible to bind up some of the dialogue in ritualistic phrases, and could we strengthen a game by doing so?
  • I agree dialogue dynamics has a lot to do with it. It my game, I explicitly tell my players: "here, choose one of these character types," which they do, along with the various choices involved in specializing each one, then, "okay now let's create a world," and I ask them certain leading questions like, "What resources does your home have?" and "What resources does your home lack?" and "What kinds of things do you do every day in this world?" or "How do you help your home meet its needs?" -- And from that sort of thing, we have the seed of an adventure -- they've told me what sort of situation they're interested, and I've tried to identify the problems we'll all enjoy dealing with. If I were just to say, "Okay so now make up a world and your characters in it!" they'd be totally lost.

    Likewise, I usually give them a problem to deal with, based on their own ideas here, and then I say, "what do you do? You can choose from one of these example sentences: 'I want to defeat [someone] by [doing something],' 'I want to persuade [someone] to [do something],' 'I want to get an idea about [something]'..." and so on. Before long, it becomes natural to go back and forth this way.

    It's kind of like mad libs, I suppose, except that it's not random at all. Players are filling in the blanks with content that they're genuinely interested in -- but giving them everything but the blanks makes that possible.

    Apocalypse World is the game that finally taught me to do this. The whole thing is basically a structure for players and GMs to dialogue back and forth, each one offering the other something a kind of verbal volleyball, hitting the situation back and forth across the net of the "moves" and the dice. The options the moves provide are the seeds that mix with the receptive soil of the mind to generate "story now."

    Like, if you said, "David, tell me a story," I'd have to really consider hard what to say, even if I had the option of telling any old fairy tale. But if you said, "David, tell me a story about a Duck, an Elevator, and 3 dollars at the bottom of a picnic basket full of rotten fruit," I'd be all over that in 30 seconds, and we'd all be having a great time. The only structure I need is that you give me something to start with -- the words themselves may even be random, but the structure of three words from you and then a short silly story from me has to be rigid.

    Freedom within limits = human nature.
  • Posted By: TomasHVMWould that differ from designing games in English, Jonathan? Would the language influence what kind of game you'd make?
    Totally. There's a number of things at work. First, Chinese has its own unique characteristics that would doubtlessly influence the wording and structure of rules and guidelines. But, more importantly I think, is Steve's point about audience. You can't assume that Chinese audiences understand scene framing or any of the other techniques common to indie games of late. Lots of examples would be needed if I'm asking them to do something they're not familiar with from a computer RPG or maybe playing D&D3. Also, I would probably be restricted to writing a game about a subject that I have a pretty decent vocabulary for, just like I wouldn't be able to write a game about the medical profession or international curling teams, even writing in English. I just don't have the vocabulary for it. And, in Chinese, while I'm pretty fluent, the subject areas for which I feel relatively comfortable in the language are much fewer than in English.
  • David; very good examples of what I'm talking about. The dialogue between us makes it easy, yes. And my point, building on this, is: designing on how to make specific dialogues in rpg's must be a very interesting venue to explore ...

    Jonathan; your thoughts about vocabulary is really interesting. I've pondered knowledge the last couple of years, in relation to what kind of games I'm of a mind to design now, that I never thought about before. I believe it's related; as you gain knowledge you broaden your vocabulary, and thus you enable yourself to design on new themes.

    So not only do I sharpen my design-skills, I also broaden my knowledge. And I expect all of us to do that, and that we are the first generation experiencing this, in the field of role-playing design. I find that very interesting.
  • edited May 2011
    Oh definitely. There are games that I could sketch out pretty easily now that I had real trouble with or thought were impossible just a few years ago. It's completely insane how things have changed. Right now, the bleeding edge of my design senses, the point past which I have trouble imagining what the game would be like, is way, way further out than it was in the past. In some ways, though, it makes things harder at the same time that it makes things easier. If I can attempt to design a game about nearly anything, what should I do? It's the problem of too many choices.

    Sometimes I feel like we should have an "impossible games" event, where people share the game concepts that are just past what they think is currently possible, given the traditions and techniques that currently exist and our current knowledge about games. And then other people can try to turn them into reality. Sounds like it would be fun and that we would learn a lot.
  • Impossible Games sounds like a great name for a publisher. And it's a nice idea for a competition or a workshop.
    Posted By: J. WaltonThere are games that I could sketch out pretty easily now that I had real trouble with or thought were impossible just a few years ago.
    Ja! I believe that is true for all designers who are in contact with the developments of late years. Playing the new games opens up new venues of design, snowballing us all into the great unknown. Some of us jump ahead, breaking the new ground, and some come barking very close behind, exploring the premises laid bare by the avant-garde and sowing the field with great games.

    I expect a lot to happen in the years to come, and especially within the field of dialogue techniques. It's been largely ignored up until now. I expect it to give us a whole new range of effective design tools.
  • I totally agree that modern games are really pushing the boundaries a lot, but I think there's a lot more we can do.

    One thing I think it would be useful to think about in RPG design is that dialogue at the table should match dialogue in the fiction. What if players never had to say things like, "Okay so I roll my Strength +5, plus my base attack of +5, with a +3 bonus for my Swordsmanship skill, and I get, an 18!" or "I roll 'Swordsmanship d8' plus my 'You killed my father, prepare to die d12'! And I hit!"? What if we could just say, "Okay, so I stagger forward, point my sword out and say, 'You killed my father, prepare to die!" and that was it? That was all the system required me to say, and yet we would still know what dice to roll or however to adjudicate the result according to the system.

    I see story games moving in that direction, more and more with each generation of innovation.
  • Posted By: KayfallWhat if we could just say, "Okay, so I stagger forward, point my sword out and say, 'You killed my father, prepare to die!" and that was it? That was all the system required me to say, and yet we would still know what dice to roll or however to adjudicate the result according to the system.
    Oh, this makes me joyful! Of course; in my frpg Fabula you always know what die to roll; you always use the same single die, and when you have rolled that one die you know what has happened, even how much damage the foul fiend got from your sword.

    Every game should be like that, of course! ;-)

    Modern games will get there, more and more of them. It's all about making methods that is more intuitive, that supports the flow of the dialogue even better than in the old days (nowadays). The question is what kind of tools there may be, that will make make this happen? Maybe we could indulge in a bit of speculation?

    Example 1, dialogue-technique:
    - When you (the GM) open the game, make it clear from the start that all dialogue in the game will be stated by the characters. Every word of it! Live with this narrow framework for speaking while playing, until all of you consider it a natural way of playing this game.

    Example 2, dialogue-technique:
    - Whenever someone states an intent to do something, with his character, all other players will chatter about it, as if it was something that had already happened, and went well, or bad, or produced some peculiar result. This chatter is in fact the way the action is resolved; the coolest part of the chatter becomes reality. When that has happened, the GM frames another scene, and the players may act again ...
  • One of the things I find fascinating about language and game design is that one of the ways of looking at a game is as a "artificial" language, which can allow the designer and the players to express nuance and implication in a way which "natural" (most likely really theatrical) language is often ill-suited.

    For this purpose a good mechanic, procedure, or what not, should act as a means to handle and describe an otherwise diffuse and inaccessible concept.
  • I like your thoughts, Mendel, but I'm not entirely sure how the "artificial language" is expressed? What does it consist of; how does it differ from natural language? And how does it come into existence? I'd really like to hear your thoughts on this.
  • Tomas,

    When I mean artificial I mean that in the sense of constructed by the players and/or by the designer. For players at least, this draws upon the natural process that groups of people will created new references and abbreviations of concepts and events which only have clear meaning within those groups. These allow us to communicate more clearly and succinctly, and with much greater certainty about the more subtle meanings we will indicate.

    In the course of a game, the game's events become potential short-hand for its behaviors*. If in the game procedures you indicate agreement by mimicking another person's actions, then beyond exploiting basic body language of sympathy you are, due to the conscious awareness of the mimicry, equating the mimicry with agreement and a breaking of the mimicry with disagreement, and so on. This created meaning stands sharply against the potential conscious interpretation of mimicry as mockery.

    Likewise, mechanics can serve the same purpose, and indeed have the advantage of having less connotation strapped to them. Or to put it another way, with mechanics driven language you are less often (but certainly not always) breaking down a disparate understanding of the sign as you are building up a sign.

    One example that helped me start thinking this way** was a playtest of a 24 hour game I wrote some years ago. The premise was to encapsulate the violence of social interaction, so the game Savagery specifically ported the language of physical combat into social conflict, so debating became grappling and a empathy let you make a cheap shot to brutalize your friends. When we began building characters, we found ourselves having a meta-discussion about arguing about the game rules using the game rules as an example of what the rules of the game mean. This surreal and enjoyable experience was only possible by adopting the terms of the mechanics of the game into our group language.

    Since then I've taken a hard look at the assumption that "game speak" is some how devoid of creative content. I've realized that instead mechanics and procedures provide a powerful tool (if designed or player-modified appropriately) to reduce confusion and miscommunication about the very emotional and fictional elements of play. It resembles the way that genre conventions work in fictions, that jargon develops in technical fields, or that friends develop personal references. It may seem incomprehensible to outsiders and thus devoid of meaning, and indeed that is one of the design and play considerations, but that isn't a failure in communication, it is an indication that we are tapping into the real human behavior.

    - Mendel

    * I'm using a technical meaning of behavior here - literally the different possible or likely chains of events of the game.

    ** Looking at games as an artificial language is one of the two main theories of play and design that I've created for my own use. While I find it helpful, it doesn't always apply to my goals in play and design.
  • edited May 2011
    Mendel; your grasp of the game-dialogue is impressive. The game you describe; Savagery, sounds very interesting. This kind of insight is exactly what I'm searching for here.

    I believe that all dialogue is creative. There is no way for us to create a dialogue without being creative. So game-speak must be, too.

    In my fable-rpg Muu (1989) I made a simple poetic terminology to be used in descriptions within the game, by the muu-leader and the muu-players. It developed into a kind of real-life sociolect for the most experienced/engaged muu-players. Playing the game a lot, and having a shared sense of fun in it, they developed a shared way of using words that conveyed meaning by referring back to the game. The poetry of the game became a code in real life, but a kind of code that highlighted the poetic qualities of life. This way of speaking left "outsiders" in the dark, of course, in much the same way any sociolect tend to do.

    When I wrote my frpg Fabula (1999) I sifted through the Norwegian language for phrases to use on key elements of the game. I ended up with a lot of strange words, like "grunker" (old slang for money) and "gondul" (archaic term for magic tool), and used these to set a verbal tone in the game. Some critics found this to be putting them off, but that was generally not the feeling of those actually playing the game; they adopted the phrases and found pleasure in using them. My intention in doing this was to make the game somehow true to it's atmosphere of "olden days".

    Most game designers do this, more or less, when writing their games. It is obvious, when you think about it. By creating such key-phrases, the designers lay down the foundations for a code used by their players, both in the game, and outside of it. Any old role-playing game had its own phrases that triggered such sociolects, and all role-playing games together gave us some general game-phrases that maintained a shared understanding between role-players. I believe there is layer upon layer here, of codes and communication. It is what makes us into a community, of sorts. ;-)

    So I'm totally with you, Mendel, in describing a game as a "artificial language". Doing that opens up new ways of looking at games.
  • edited May 2011
    One question is; How far can we go?

    A whole lot of game-designers share the Tolkien'esque fantasy of a whole new language, like the one for the elves in Middle Earth. And that language has it's real life followers; people actually speaking it. Such facts stirs the imagination of many designers, of course. But most fall short in actually doing it. It proves too daunting a task, if they at all try it.

    I've seen it done once, by a couple of Norwegian game designers. They sent me a manuscript for reading, with a whole book on a fictitious language they had invented. It was interesting to see, but it was more of a dead appendix to the game, than any real boon to the game-play. I reckon it has been done other places too, without much success. Making a whole new language is taking it one step too far, in my eyes. A whole lot of work, to little gain.

    I reckon these tools may be used to greater effect:
    - Giving key phrases; that may inspire dialogue.
    - Laying down certain rules for how to speak; that may frame the dialogue in interesting ways.
    - Writing the game in a certain style; that may bleed into the game-speak.
    - Harmonizing the methodic terminology of the game with the theme; that may strengthen the overall game atmosphere.

    Could you think of other effective dialogue-tools/techniques?
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